The following is excerpted from a speech delivered by Rev. William Barber at a Martin Luther King Day celebration at Riverside Church in New York City last month. We publish it today as we both reflect on the violence inflicted upon the people of Flint, Michigan, by the state’s leadership and as we look toward weeks of voting in the presidential primaries. What values must guide our elected officials? What kinds of violence truly threaten our nation and our communities? Rev. Barber’s moving speech offers a progressive moral compass for our political process. —The Editors
For the past few weeks, we have been exposed to a flood of images of death and killing, with commentators of all stripes calling it terrorism, violence, and injustice out in California. The evil of taking a life is vile and vicious, by ISIS or any other thug—by anybody that’s just wanting to destroy life. We must pray for the families.
But as we look at these images, and listen to the diagnoses of the commentators, I hear a call from Dr. King and our ancestors to speak truth in the midst of terror, violence and injustice, to challenge a fundamental misdiagnosis against the opportunistic misdiagnoses of those who try to pimp and prostitute the deaths in California for their own vicious political agenda.
Some, like hosts on a certain sly-as-a-Fox television station, use the death of these innocent people to push their accusations—their racist, fear-mongering agenda against the president, against immigrants, and against Muslims. One of these flaky Fox fellas said the greatest threat to national security ever is a president who is incapable, psychologically and politically, and who is not in the business of protecting America but protecting Muslims.
In the tradition of Dr. King, we do not agree with everything our president or any politician has said. [But] that statement is ridiculous. Muslims are Americans. Muslims are soldiers in our military. What is really going on here is what Cornel West might call the “niggerization” or the “othering” of certain people.
You know what that is. The definition of the N-word is not simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people and the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of black people. “Niggerization” is the wholesale attempt to impede democratization, to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects. They use the attacks on Muslims the same way racists in the past and present use fear-mongering against blacks.
As my friend Phyllis Bennett and I discussed the other night, America does not have a “Muslim problem” or even a “terrorism problem” as much as we have a race problem…a xenophobia problem. Let’s get the diagnosis right.
Let me push this further. Nothing is gained by pretending there aren’t terrible things to be afraid of. Terrorism is real because millions of people live in terror. But we must be clear about the roots of terror. We cannot misdiagnose the malignancy of terror. It’s not Islam. And it’s certainly not foreign. Terror is one of America’s exports. We cannot hide behind blind, infallible notions of American exceptionalism and pay our chaplains to deny it. Consider the second verse of “America the Beautiful,” a national hymn: America, America, God mend thy every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.